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There are numerous, (or at least one that I can think of), horror films which - after watching a short film or video - or seeing a particular thing - the person would be cursed and (probably) die.

Is it actually possible for a 2D image or video to kill the person who sees it? How would this have to work?

  • The person would have to die either immediately or later
  • They need to have died because of the image/video. By this I mean that the particular image need to have killed them. You can't count an image that could be replaced by another random image. For example, any random text message or image on a cell phone which caused the person to crash and die while driving would not count)
  • It should kill 60% or greater of the people who look at it
  • You must not post the image on this site or you won't get any upvotes - because we'd be dead.
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    $\begingroup$ A sign with "Vaccines cause autism" on it? $\endgroup$ – Dan Smolinske Aug 5 '15 at 23:32
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    $\begingroup$ Propoganda posters and films have sent many a man to their death around the world, in imagery intended to rationalize joining a losing, or even winning, war effort. (Okay, I'm sure that's not what you're looking for, but...) $\endgroup$ – Mikey Aug 6 '15 at 0:46
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    $\begingroup$ xkcd.com/356 $\endgroup$ – Owen Aug 6 '15 at 5:57
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    $\begingroup$ A image painted with plutonium $\endgroup$ – Vajura Aug 6 '15 at 9:39
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    $\begingroup$ You need to read BLIT. $\endgroup$ – AakashM Aug 6 '15 at 10:07

18 Answers 18

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It's simply not possible.

The novel Snow Crash has the most plausible explanation as to how something like this would work.

"The book presents the Sumerian language as the firmware programming language for the brainstem, which is supposedly functioning as the BIOS for the human brain."

This language is written in a 2D format that looks similar to the "snow" static on a old TV screen. It programs the brain through activating, in a binary fashion, fibers in the optic nerve.

However, it's pure fiction. It also makes me realize that kids these days don't know about the TV snow... sigh.

Anyway.

The only way you're going to get a any kind of image to kill someone is if that image is made of a material outputting high levels of ionizing radiation. Of course, that has nothing to do with the image itself.

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    $\begingroup$ Well unless it's a picture so horrifying/horrible/depressing it would make the victim kill themselves. There is some pretty messed up sh*t out there but good luck at finding something which would cause a person without a predisposition to commit suicide. $\endgroup$ – papirtiger Aug 5 '15 at 23:53
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    $\begingroup$ @DoubleDouble Essentially, yes. But the image it's displaying can be random, so it fails the test. $\endgroup$ – Samuel Aug 6 '15 at 0:12
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    $\begingroup$ Ugh. Snow Crash was a mess and a half. Its whole plot hinged on important "facts" about three fields--linguistics, religious history, and computer programming--and it was badly wrong about all three. The "binary images" bit was one of the worst parts: computer programmers just don't have that innate understanding of binary; they work at much higher levels of abstraction! (There is actually one class of people who have learned an innate understanding of binary communication, but they would be immune to the images as well: blind people who read Braille.) $\endgroup$ – Mason Wheeler Aug 6 '15 at 21:05
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    $\begingroup$ @mattdm I think you mean "super-technically correct". Which is the best kind of correct ;) $\endgroup$ – Samuel Aug 6 '15 at 22:16
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    $\begingroup$ Can't argue with that! $\endgroup$ – mattdm Aug 6 '15 at 23:18
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Killer Joke

Write a joke that's so funny that anyone who reads it will die from laughter.

Monty Python did this in "The Funniest Joke in the World" sketch:

...The British Army wish to determine "the military potential of the Killer Joke." They test the joke on a rifleman, who snickers and falls dead on the range. They then translate it into German, with each translator working on only one word of the joke so as not to be killed. The German translation is used for the first time on 8 July 1944 in the Ardennes, causing German soldiers to fall down dead from laughter...

Killer Joke

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WwbnvkMRPKM

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    $\begingroup$ I laugh all the time when I see this sketch! It was simply brilliant! Oh, wait... Am I in danger? $\endgroup$ – Ismael Miguel Aug 6 '15 at 12:05
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    $\begingroup$ I like the part where one translator got hold of two words and had to be hospitalized for several weeks. $\endgroup$ – Oldcat Aug 17 '15 at 22:38
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This answer depends on the exact definition of "2d image", for your purpose, but most people would agree that the thing shown on a TV qualifies as a "2d image"

Google "Photosensitive epilepsy". A non-static 2d image can trigger epilepsy (i.e. strobing light/dark at the right frequency).

There was an episode of Pokemon, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Denn%C5%8D_Senshi_Porygon , which showed red and blue "extremely bright strobe lights, with blinks at a rate of about 12 Hz for approximately six seconds"; 685 children were taken to hospital, of which 150 were admitted to hospital, and 2 remained for more than two weeks. People have died from epileptic seizures at inconvenient times - e.g. while driving. Not "60%", by any means, but it's a start.

There are also static images which show weird effects, for example google for "optical illusion moving", and you will see some examples of this. While these do no damage, it shows reasonably that static images can, in fact, trigger effects that are not normally associated with static images.

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    $\begingroup$ awesome irl reference :-) $\endgroup$ – Tschallacka Aug 6 '15 at 13:23
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    $\begingroup$ My favorite part about that story is that "Some other people had seizures when parts of the scene were rebroadcast during news reports on the seizures." $\endgroup$ – Samuel Aug 6 '15 at 18:00
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    $\begingroup$ see also the McCollough Effect, which (although it requires a priming process) causes someone to literally see a particular color when presented with a particular illustration of black and white bars. this effect has been documented to last up to three and a half months. $\endgroup$ – Woodrow Barlow Aug 6 '15 at 18:39
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    $\begingroup$ This episode is also the reason why neither Porygon nor any of its evolutions have appeared in the Pokémon anime since. $\endgroup$ – Pyritie Aug 7 '15 at 14:26
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Images that incite terrorism/war.

Arguably, the spreading of images which exploit a deep-set hatred between specific groups would be extremely effective at getting specific people to kill others and get themselves killed in war or through terrorism.

For example, the Charlie Hebdo depictions of Muhammad incited the Charlie Hebdo shootings, which resulted in the deaths of many of the Charlie Hebdo artists as well as the terrorists themselves, who were shot by the police.

Similarly, propaganda encouraging people to fight for ISIS can be extremely effective in getting Muslim extremists killed. The same can probably be said for images depicting the defiling of specific religious/nationalist buildings or objects, which incite terror attacks or wars.

The most effective kinds of propaganda would probably be the messages that encourage suicide bombers, who kill themselves believing that they would receive specific rewards in heaven after the act of martyrdom.

Granted, none of these images even come close to achieving a 60% kill rate when exposed to the general population, but it is arguable that the general population would not come into contact with such images in the first place. When applied to these specific susceptible populations, the kill rate can be rather substantial.

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  • $\begingroup$ The problem with this is that it doesn't kill the person who looks at the image. It makes that person kill other people who might not even know the image exists. I don't think that this is what the question was looking for. $\endgroup$ – Philipp Apr 9 '17 at 14:31
  • $\begingroup$ @Philipp It certainly can. A poster saying "Martyr yourself for Allah against the imperialist Americans" is likely at least somewhat effective at killing the reader, if the reader is a fundamentalist Muslim terrorist. $\endgroup$ – March Ho Apr 9 '17 at 18:22
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As Samuel indicated, a 2D image that kills isn't possible, let's see what it would take to make it happen.

A 2D image passes through the eyes, along the optic nerve and into the lateral geniculate nucleus then into the primary and secondary visual cortex of the brain. The visual cortex is in the cerebrum while basic life functions such as heartbeat and breathing are contained in the brain stem.

The most direct route to kill someone with visual input would be to have the image tell the visual cortex to send a signal to the brain stem to forget or override any functionality that keeps the heart beating or diaphragm breathing. There are no direct routes between the visual cortex to the brain stem so any signal would need to make it through any number of other sub-systems before reaching the brain stem. Each intermediate system may change or straight block the signal so those alterations must be accounted for in the original signal.

The 2D image will need to coerce some very hard wired neural pathways to change. It is not difficult to imagine that the heart-beat circuits are the most burned in within the human brain as they have been in use the longest, pre-birth. Life has had lots of practice making this part of the brain very resilient so breaking functionality here will be incredibly difficult.

Neurons are not Turing Complete so they have no programming language, instead they are neural networks and as such they excel at pattern recognition. Altering functionality in the brain stem would require resetting some or all brainstem neuron weights.

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  • $\begingroup$ Your headline para says "isn't possible", but your justification says merely "very difficult". Many very difficult things are in fact possible. $\endgroup$ – AakashM Aug 7 '15 at 7:38
  • $\begingroup$ @AakashM good point. Clarified the answer. $\endgroup$ – Green Aug 7 '15 at 13:11
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Design a nanotechnological virus which infects everyone but remains dormant. The image will be just a trigger for the virus to activate and kill the host.

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  • $\begingroup$ +1 for simple and effective approach. Unfortunately your answer doesn't satisfy OP's requirements. Virus, not image, will kill people and any image can be used as a trigger for the virus. $\endgroup$ – default locale Aug 6 '15 at 12:26
  • $\begingroup$ I would say it's not any random image, as the virus is programed for a particular, very specific image. The OP's example was telling me about a text message, where not the content, but the act of sending the message was the cause, and any other message would have caused a crash. $\endgroup$ – vsz Aug 6 '15 at 12:58
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What about instant hypnosis or hypnosis in general? Either the video can trigger a behaviour or be the put the victim into a state of hypnosis. To work around the issue that the person would not commit acts that are harming himself, the command would be something that indirectly leads to death. For example simple driving deep into the desert, the command of driving itself is not what would kill him.

What else could work is an optical illusion. Think of a reversed Indiana Jones "leap of faith" bridge. From a certain angle it would look like there is a bridge. This would be location bound but would still fulfil the criteria that it directly kills the target and can't be exchanged. Either the person sees the bridge or there is no bridge to be seen. I once found an article about a road in the USA that killed people. There was a sharp turn on a cliff and another road on the opposite at aligned with the current road. The road looked just straight and people would just fall to death on it.

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  • $\begingroup$ That last paragraph seems to describe many scenes from cartoon chase sequences. Considering many of those ended with a head-on collision with a wall or someone falling off a cliff, I think you're on to something. $\endgroup$ – DaaaahWhoosh Aug 7 '15 at 15:10
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We're not Biology SE, and I think our hypothesis has not been disproved by actual research, so let's skip the scientific "can we do it?". We're on Worldbuilding thus we can bend the universe(s) to our will!

Finding the image

could be a plot itself

Let's start by assuming that a 2d-image capable of killing an human-being can exist.

The question is how to make one, so the "certainly successful solution" is obtaining the image by using a neural-network-like research paradigm fueled by a combination of genetic algorithm (I meant this, not brute-forcing) and neuro-imaging, somewhat similar to software fuzz testing.

  1. First get some people and make them watch random white or coloured noise images. At the same time have them MRI-scanned or EEG-scanned for brain activity.

  2. Start variating some pixels in the images and give weight to those that show an increased or erratic brain activity (ie. the visual cortex could be an hot-spot as Green's answer says).

  3. An increase of mortality and sickness among test subjects will highlight success.
  4. If monitoring staff starts dying too then you're done.

  5. Profit! (Post it on imgur...)

Some kind of distortion can be applied for safe-viewing.

Obviously this is like brute-forcing a password: you will find it, but you know it is the least efficient way.

In the end (this could take many years, unless heavily parallelized) you will have the killer-pic.

Maybe you will be approached by Foundation's gentlemen looking to contain your newly created memetic kill agent.


Addendum: if you could simulate a brain or a human body at a molecular level, this would speedup the research a lot.

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    $\begingroup$ This is an excellent idea (+1). It doesn't have to be brute-force. You can use a genetic algorithm to select pictures based on all sorts of physical changes in the subject, e.g. release of adrenalin, heart rate, EEG. A combination of factors that individually wouldn't cause death might together prove fatal. $\endgroup$ – chasly from UK Aug 10 '15 at 9:39
  • $\begingroup$ I wanted to mean that, but i came up with brute-force because it didn't come to my mind while i was answering ;) $\endgroup$ – beppe9000 Aug 15 '15 at 14:08
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Why every one says it is not possible? Tell that all the parrents of thoose japanese kids that died by watching the Pokemon episode with all the flahsing lights (I can't describe it better as I never risked watching it^^

But it is well known that it caused many epileptic seizure by kids that were watching it and it is also known that it caused death to some of them.

So saying this is immpossible isn't true. Maybe it is impossible to cause instant death with 100% accuraccy. But if this can even happen by accident. What if you even research in this area? I would bet the death rate would be increasable if thats the goal.

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    $\begingroup$ The problem here is that epilepsy is caused by a family of structural defects in the brain, defects which not everyone has (in fact, it seems that the vast majority of people do not have them). It may be that everyone has a sensitivity to some stimulus which would cause epilepsy-like symptoms, but no such stimulus is known (or plausibly suspected) to exist. $\endgroup$ – Deolater Aug 6 '15 at 15:44
  • $\begingroup$ @Deolater: Ah ok, didn't knew that. I'll keep this as an answer anyway as it m8 fit to what OP is looking for. $\endgroup$ – Zaibis Aug 6 '15 at 17:42
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    $\begingroup$ Of the 4.6 million households who watched that episode, zero people died. That's 0% kill rate, far below the 60% requirement. $\endgroup$ – Samuel Aug 6 '15 at 22:22
  • $\begingroup$ It's worth noting that many of those hospitalised by the incident were not actually epileptic and had no prior history of seizures. $\endgroup$ – Pharap Aug 7 '15 at 3:37
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This may be a bit far-fetched, but one possibility is an image of an optical illusion that when viewed causes an illusion so intense that the brain can't find a way to process it and begins to 'short circuit', thus enducing fatal seizures. The image could for example be a combination of every optical illusion known to man, that would be a large amount of complicated input.

I have no scientific foundation for this other than optical illusions being disorienting and the fact the brain is responsible for processing optical input.

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There are Youtube videos that build up a feeling of menace and then suddenly a horrible face appears. I won't post the actual images here but you can search for 7 Scary YouTube Screamers That Will Make You Jump .

If the watcher had a heart condition, this could potentially kill them.

Such videos could be designed by psychologists to have an even more shocking effect and therefore cause heart attacks in healthy people. This would work even better if they were led through a dungeon-like environment on the way to see the video. The scare factor could be built up by actors saying how others had died before them. The way out would progressively be blocked to avoid retreat.

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    $\begingroup$ The trouble is, the average human is a pretty robust system - any who weren't probably died before they could pass on their vulnerability to too much of the next generation. No matter how scary or depressing, an image or movie won't kill - or cause to commit suicide - the required minimum of 60% of those who see it. $\endgroup$ – Monty Wild Aug 6 '15 at 0:08
  • $\begingroup$ I see nothing in the question that mentions natural selection. I suppose it could be a factor. $\endgroup$ – chasly from UK Aug 6 '15 at 1:36
  • $\begingroup$ Next question: how does 60% of the population develop heart conditions? $\endgroup$ – Pharap Aug 7 '15 at 8:15
  • $\begingroup$ @Pharap - Did you read my answer? ---> "...and therefore cause heart attacks in healthy people." $\endgroup$ – chasly from UK Aug 10 '15 at 9:34
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I'm assuming that the image can be light emitting rather than simply light-reflecting.

Any normal video or picture on a computer monitor is light emitting.

The victim is instructed to look at the image. It is a very large image occupying much of a wall. The pixels are in fact lasers. To begin with their intensity is kept to a minimum. As soon as the victim is standing in the right place looking at the picture the intensity of the lasers is turned up to eleven.

Two of the lasers are directed into the eyes to blind the person. However the rest are all focused on the external carotid arteries. The blinded and disoriented person has no chance of stopping the blood flow and bleeds to death.

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    $\begingroup$ I rather suspect that - if there was a god of fatal images as you have a god of wooden weapons in one of your questions: worldbuilding.stackexchange.com/q/21814/75 - you'd get zapped for trying this. It isn't the image but the lasers that are doing the killing. $\endgroup$ – Monty Wild Aug 6 '15 at 1:03
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    $\begingroup$ @MontyWild - Wait one moment. Any visual image projects light onto us - that's true even if it is reflected light. If it didn't we wouldn't be able to see it. This is just an extreme version. It projects laser light. We'd be able to see the image right up to the second we went blind. $\endgroup$ – chasly from UK Aug 6 '15 at 1:28
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    $\begingroup$ @chaslyfromUK, My interpretation of the question is that the image/video in question must be (reasonably) fatal if shown on something like a regular monitor/TV or even on a piece of paper. By design, those things can't emit fatal radiation like lasers (not that there have ever been any laser-caused direct fatalities of this sort that I've heard of: laserpointersafety.com/perspectives/risks/risks.html) $\endgroup$ – Monty Wild Aug 6 '15 at 1:45
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I think I have a valid answer that will have a 60% or higher rate (it builds on the answer from chalsyfromUK):

There are Youtube videos that build up a feeling of menace and then suddenly a horrible face appears. I won't post the actual images here but you can search for 7 Scary YouTube Screamers That Will Make You Jump .

If the watcher had a heart condition, this could potentially kill them.

I would just add that, if we do this back in the early 1900's...it would probably kill them regardless of any medical conditions. Imagine showing The Blair Witch Project, or some other modern horror movie, to people from that era. I suspect even a lot of the younger folks would die, either of heart attack or psycho-stresses soon after.

(Ironically, like you started in your OP, a lot of horror films have this theme where a person sees a video and they die from it, and a valid way to do that might be to show a horror movie too!)

The propaganda approach is also equally valid here. People like Stalin took advantage of new technology like radio and movies, of which most people had never heard/seen before, to build huge cults of personality. So you could use a propaganda movie to make the people go to war or march to the south pole, whatever.

So in your book, ask yourself what "culture" the general population has.

Then ask yourself, what about other cultures? Future cultures? Will 100 years from now have movies that could make us die today?

Alien cultures? They might be different enough in just the right way, that us today might suffer and die from watching one of their movies.

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  • $\begingroup$ 60% of the planet could include plenty of people without YouTube access. We might not be able to get 60% of a given US population but perhaps some other areas. $\endgroup$ – TafT Aug 7 '15 at 11:30
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Somewhat inspired by Inception, the image shows/proves that you are inside a dream/simulation causing you to escape through "death". Maybe it is the contract you signed that you agree to a temporary memory replacement and "death" being the escape route in case they cannot get you out automatically. There are some variations possible for the image, but a random image will not do. It can be on any medium with reasonable quality and be copied. Getting it to work on ~60% of the people will be hard. A quick glance will not be enough, you need some time to actually form the idea in your head.

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Barring magic, probably not. But it doesn't mean that it can't happen in reality. In a society where everyone strongly believes that magic is real and that woodoo can kill (for example most of Africa today), something that makes those who look at it believe they are cursed to death will likely lead to their death. Details of such an image depend on local magic systems, but they should be horrible enough to terrify even an unbeliever. And for those taking as granted that the magic is real, the death rate (counting death within days or weeks) can be as high as 60%.

Assuming that magic works in the world (nothing in the question said that this should can't be the case), the possibilities are unlimited, from "voodoo" slightly enhancing the mentioned effect to "explosive runes" from DnD.

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Inspired by Chasly from UK's answer, and relying on the ability to predetermine the environment:

You have a long, dimly lit hall with a deep pit covered by a lid that will fall away once sufficient weight is placed upon it, say 40kg. At the end of the hall is a metal safe door with only an illuminated green button.

You prepare your experiment with an (apparently) unrelated individual being given a large sum of money, who is talking about how ridiculously easy it was for him to win it, before showing the subject the door to the hall.

Inside the hall, you show a video clip on a screen above the safe door stating (translated into the observer's language if necessary) "Press the green button in [n] seconds in order to receive your $10,000 prize.", replacing the [n] with a number counting down from, say 5, and the monetary figure with a similarly large amount in whatever the local currency is. Since the hall is fairly long, but apparently featureless, the person would have to run in order to reach the button in time, but since the floor is booby-trapped, the person falls to their death instead if they do so.

Don't make the sum of money unbelievably large, and make the run only barely achievable in the time allocated, and it is likely you'd get a lot of people running to their deaths trying to win it.

Without the ability to manipulate the environment and use an image or video to induce the subject to perform a fatal action, there is no way that an image could cause a fatality in the majority of those who see it simply because they saw it, and it caused a fatal mental state. The average human mind and body is too robust a system for that to happen, you could only get a few, rare, susceptible individuals.

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Simple. The 2d image is used to send a subliminal message. The result is that the person, under the power of suggestion, makes some decision that ultimately results in their death. This can only be orchestrated by some mastermind who operates on a great degree of foresight an psychology.

Subliminal messaging has been banned in some countries.

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    $\begingroup$ There is no evidence subliminal messaging works. $\endgroup$ – March Ho Aug 6 '15 at 6:44
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    $\begingroup$ @MarchHo Saying "no evidence" is pretty broad. A single claim that it exists or affected someone can be considered "evidence." The better question is, does any strong evidence, or good evidence, exist in its favor? $\endgroup$ – DrZ214 Aug 6 '15 at 21:58
  • $\begingroup$ @MarchHo There are repeatable experiments that suggest that subliminal messaging works. There are TV documentaries that run these experiments and provide positive results. Anyone could just say "There is no evidence that gravity exists." It's kind of our own responsibility to educate yourself of the existing discourse rather than espouse ignorant statements. $\endgroup$ – Lorry Laurence mcLarry Aug 7 '15 at 1:32
  • $\begingroup$ While I was probably not justified in stating that absolutely no evidence exists, what evidence exists is so poor as to constitute no effective evidence. csicop.org/si/show/cargo-cult_science_of_subliminal_persuasion references a number of very poorly conducted experiments regarding subliminal messaging. There was not a single experiment which was rigorously carried out and replicable. Furthermore, there was a possibility that the original "popcorn and coke" experiment was faked. $\endgroup$ – March Ho Aug 7 '15 at 1:45
  • $\begingroup$ Analogy: 'the death star does not exist' is not disproof of laser beams. To the contrary, scientist use lasers all the time. What ever 'Star Wars' cults have been discredited is irrelevant. Similarly, subliminal massaging is a VERY common approach used by advertisement marketing agencies. These agencies are trusted with Billions of dollars of corporate funds. They are presumably not run by whack jobs. $\endgroup$ – Lorry Laurence mcLarry Aug 7 '15 at 3:15
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We are allowed to manipulate the environment.

The victim is led along a narrow walkway in semi-darkness. A scary picture appears suddenly to one side. At that point on the walkway at the opposite side there is a deep pit that is concealed in the darkness. The victim screams, steps sideways and falls into the pit. The base of the pit can contain whatever is needed for their demise.

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    $\begingroup$ This is what I try to avoid with "You can't count an image that could be replaced by another random image" - the image shown to them doesn't matter. It could be any random image accompanied with a loud noise. - in the same way you can't use glasses which go completely one color when someone is trying to cross a bridge without railings or drive a car at high speeds. $\endgroup$ – DoubleDouble Aug 6 '15 at 0:16
  • $\begingroup$ Okay, I misunderstood your restriction. I thought that you meant that we should be able to replace the image with any other and it still works. Now that I know I can submit an answer with the correct conditions. BTW - Try re-reading your original restriction - it actually can be read in such a way as to mean the opposite of what you intended. $\endgroup$ – chasly from UK Aug 15 '15 at 14:23

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